Back in 1994, Intiman Theatre became the first regional theater in America to produce Tony Kushner’s epic play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. This summer, under the direction of Andrew Russell—who used to work as Kushner’s assistant—Intiman will stage both parts of the six and a half-hour play, which has become a critical contribution to the American canon. This weekend, Kushner comes to Seattle to talk with The Stranger’s executive editor Dan Savage at Town Hall. Earlier this week, Kushner spoke with The Stranger by phone.
The Stranger: How many stagings of Angels in America would you guess you’ve seen over the years? Do you have even the faintest idea?
Tony Kushner: Oh, God… no. I have no idea. I’ve never tried to figure it out. But a lot. I’ve seen a lot.
What are some of the special pitfalls of that play, mistakes productions tend to make?
Pitfalls—I’m not sure. There aren’t things I’d specifically call pitfalls. But I have my own theory that the play is essentially narrative, realist drama and I’ve seen many productions where there’s sometimes an impulse to add a sort of level of design and directorial metaphor to the reality of the thing. Maybe I shouldn’t say too much because I don’t know what Intiman is going to do with the play and I don’t want to fuck them over! But the play is predicated, in a very important way, on the real stuff being really real—because if it isn’t, the magic stuff that happens doesn’t violate anything. And you lose the whole point.
The central dramatic gesture of the play is the way in which ordinary, everyday reality is impinged upon and broken apart by inexplicable, shocking, apparently metaphysical events. If you haven’t established the material reality of the play, you can’t make anything metaphysical because there’s nothing to stand in distinction—there’s no dialectic.
But I’m not sure I’m right about that—it’s a complaint I have about a lot of theater practice, and maybe a problem in film as well. Film automatically traffics in a version of cinematic realism. In theater, there’s often an assumption—it’s a terrible thing people say to one another—that “the audience will understand the conventions.” People see what they see and may be able to translate if, say, everything is set in a subway restroom or something—maybe people can do the math to see what’s going on. But the energy the audience can devote to what it’s seeing is not limitless. When audiences are asked to sit for six and a half hours and think and interact with difficult material, it’s best to be aware of what you’re asking them to devote their energy to.
When you’re generating new levels of meaning, and when you’re making a story more difficult to understand—I don’t just mean plot, but what the play means, what it’s saying, how it resonates with a contemporary audience, and why we should be bothering to listen to the story—we’re asking a lot of an audience. And we should take care of an audience. Not taking care of them will be really costly to what we’re trying to say.
So what I’d say about Angels is what I’d say about any production: Make sure you’re doing a really good job of telling the story, make sure you’re engaging with the audience in a way that is valuable and generative and exciting and dramatic and meaningful.
The other big pitfall with the play is that Millennium [the first part of Angels in America] is three hours long, Perestroika [the second part] is about three and half hours long, and we should have three or four months to rehearse that much material. It’s absolutely, categorically insane—for the recent revival in New York [in 2010 by the Signature Theater Company], we got seven weeks—which seemed like a luxury at the time because you usually only get around four weeks. But then we realized it’s only seven weeks to rehearse two full-length plays and they’re demanding plays. The demands it makes on everyone—cast, audience—are enormous. It’s a killer. You have to go into it knowing it’s going to ask a lot of you. It’s expensive and massively consuming of energy.
Did its 20-year anniversary prompt much reflection on how the political landscape has changed in America since you were writing Angels? Certainly people are talking a lot more about class and capitalism than they were—there was the Occupy moment, Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is on the bestseller lists, there was that Princeton study about the US really being an oligarchy now…
When people think about things like the Picketty book about being on the bestseller list—I don’t know how many people are actually going to read it because it’s all this algebraic stuff. I don’t understand it, but everybody is better than math than me.
But what he’s proving beyond any point of refutation is something people have been saying for the 30–40 years of the Regan counterrevolution. What’s astonishing is that there it is, in black and white, an irrefutable—irrefutable by sane people, at least—explanation of something Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain had already said: That grotesque discrepancy of wealth is inimical to democracy. Some equality has to be engineered for democracy to work. But we’re an absolute plutocracy at this point—a plutocracy with some democratic features, so it’s not totally over.
The president has done an enormous amount to try to turn the boat around in the water. Clinton tried to but didn’t do a thorough enough job and then George W. came in and undid a lot of that. What’s horrifying is that at this point, you’re right, things nobody was willing to say—well, despite the Orwellian nonsense, a lot of people were saying it when David Stockman was director of the budget. [From 1981–1985, Republican Representative David Stockman was the director of the Office of Management and Budget.] But now everyone is acknowledging it—we’ve gone through 2007, an economic collapse, and we’ve seen that countries that tried to use austerity programming during the economic downturn are doing much worse than the US. But Obama gets no credit.
What’s horrifying is that after having it drummed into their heads for 40 years, there is still a substantial amount of the American people going out and voting against taxes, against government spending. They’re voting to give rich people more money. People voting Republican are voting for their own impoverishment—but they’re still voting Republican to keep their automatic weapons or whatever.
But there has been substantial change since Angels. We have an African-American president, which is unprecedented, we have gay marriage in so many states. (Something will have to happen soon to rationalize that patchwork of insanity we’ve been left with.) And yet we’re still fighting the monstrosities that the Reagan era helped produce: We still have Rand Paul and Sarah Palin. So in a way it has changed, and it also hasn’t changed.
The AIDS pandemic has certainly changed—the demographics have shifted enormously. It’s still this disease that should, by all rights, be provoking global alarm and compassion. But it has this infuriating and deadly propensity to vanish from the headlines for months or years on end. In some ways, there’s less talk about it now than when my play went to Broadway—there was my play, The Normal Heart, Rock Hudson dying, the AIDS quilt, this moment when people were taking a breath to address this thing that hadn’t been talked about.
Now, depending on where you live, if you’re not reading the paper closely, it’s hard for people to have any idea what’s going on with the social-medical-political response to the AIDS pandemic. It’s disappeared in a way even more thoroughly than when I was working on Angels.
The other political dimension of Angels that has changed, but only for the worse, is the whole climatological anxiety in the play. When I was working on it in the 1980s, I thought: “Am I just a left-wing crank? What if there’s no real danger to the planet and all this stuff I’ve been freaking out about is going to turn out to be nothing?” But I decided based on what I was reading that that was not the case—something horrifying was happening. And to my deep chagrin and horror, listening to the play now, all the stuff about the atmosphere burning up is hideously more true and more terrifying than it was before. Climate change makes even the AIDS epidemic seem like a solvable problem. It makes everything seem like a more solvable problem—there’s nothing more frightening because nothing is more of a threat to everything.
But there’s also positive stuff. Like Prior says at the end of the play: “We’re going to be citizens” and “The time has come.” There have been a lot of positive changes, many steps towards LGBT enfranchisement. So there are encouraging signs.
Over the years, your plays have come to seem prescient—the climate-change stuff, your discussion of what was happening in Afghanistan in Homebody/Kabul. What are you freaking out about now that the rest of us should be freaking out about, too?
I think we should be—well, I make no claims to have any predictive powers. The only times I surprised everybody, and myself, was with Homebody/Kabul. It’s a grim sort of accomplishment, but even when I wrote that line in 2000: “You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York.” “Don't worry, they're coming to New York.” But they were already here! They’d already blown up a bomb in a parking garage in 1993. There’s no prescience—I just read a newspaper article.
What we’re going to do about global warming is clearly the most pressing concern. But the thing that’s maddening to me is that I feel we’re—we’ve been very vocally upset with the progressive community in our country. We have a genuinely progressive president, who has a recognizably leftist, progressive agenda, but we’ve been unwilling to relinquish our roles as critics. We may be facing—god forbid a million times because we can’t afford this anymore—but facing another insane debate about the fiscal cliff and whether the US should default by [Congressman] Ted Yoho. These are people who are genuinely stupid. To argue that there’s no diff between balancing a family’s checkbook, or Yoho’s animal veterinary clinic—the Koch brothers had to fly into DC to tell him to stop because the things he was saying were rattling global markets.
How does someone like that even get in? Who debates stupidities while the planet is melting? We don’t have time to waste—and I don’t understand this sniffy response on the left, the repulsively irresponsible comparisons of the Obama administration to the thoroughly criminal Bush administrations. It’s immensely dangerous.
On the left we’ll talk about how the drones are horrible, the NSA is horrible, Obama is putting more immigrants away than Bush did, and how legitimate these critiques are—but there is also some evidence he listens to the criticism. We’re willing, apparently, to put all our energy into wringing our hands and saying: “We were conned, he’s no better than the Republicans.” And we will end up with a Republican congress and no chance of getting Supreme Court justices. This is maddening.
We’re not organizing to get control back of the US government, which is what we need to do. We can do it. It’s possible. It just takes a lot of work and instead of doing that work we’re sitting around, describing how Barack Obama is like George W. Bush, and it’s insane.
How do you think the theater landscape has changed since Angels?
What part of it?
I’m especially curious how the regional theaters look to you these days—the Intiman that was the first regional theater to produce Angels in America after Warner Shook campaigned for it in 1994, bears very little resemblance to the theater where Angels will be performed this summer. And there seems, to me, to be an interesting shift in the relationship between the center and the periphery—10 or 15 years ago in Seattle, it seemed like any actor, any playwright, any director who was serious about their career thought they had to move to New York or LA. Maybe that was even true, but there seem to be a lot more very capable artists who are electing to stay here and make their work here.
I’m assuming that in any theater of any size, there’s exciting stuff happening. It seems like Andrew [Russell] has been doing exciting things in Seattle. The story that one is told of Seattle is that in collapse of the dot-com boom years, things got financially much more difficult. Seattle is a very vibrant but not enormous city, and there was a sense of some struggling happening. But if that means that it’s gone back to basics and people are staying around to do great work, that’s great to hear.
The NEA hasn’t grown at all. It’s shrunk in certain ways. I don’t criticize the president for not doing more with it, because he wanted to avoid giving the radical right another football, which I kind of understand, but let’s get Congress back so we don’t have to be afraid of shit like that.
Regional theaters have been closing up second spaces that were incredibly important to giving young, untested writers their first experience with a full production. I hear constantly from young writers: “We’re getting developed to death—with all the good intentions in the world, we get brought in for a reading series but nothing comes of it because there are no production opportunities.”
But there’s an extraordinary number of younger writers I’m aware of—I think it’s a thrilling time for American playwriting. I’m very, very happy to see Pultizer go to Annie Baker, thrilled to see Will Eno on Broadway. Suzan-Lori Parks is coming back to the Public Theater, and she’s one of our most important playwrights ever. I think there’s a lot of thrilling work happening, but we have to support it. That’s the challenging part. I don’t know any playwright now who can make a living just as a playwright—people need health insurance. Though that has changed with Obama, so I’ll have to change my line on that.
If you’re a screenwriter, you get guild insurance, which is good. But then playwriting becomes your hobby and you’re supporting the theater, donating an incredibly valuable skill for ridiculously small amounts of money that can’t sustain you or your family. People often have to make the choice to not write plays because they can’t afford it.
Why do you think there’s an especially good cohort of young American playwrights now? Is that just an accident or did some institutional arrangement help that emerge?
It’s been building for a really long time—since Eugene O’Neill signed up for George Baker’s class at Harvard!
It took a long time to establish the possibility of serious theater in the US and on the basis of what O’Neill and others built, a new generation came along with great writers like Tennessee [Williams] and [Arthur] Miller. Then the regional theater movement in the ‘60s made it possible to be a serious writer and make a living of some sort without being on Broadway—which freed theater from a certain kind of marketplace tyranny and made it possible for theater to begin to deflect the country’s diversity, which it hadn’t so much then. There were important women playwrights, but you see more women writing plays today, more women of color, more gay and lesbian playwrights.
It takes time for people in a group that has been violently dispossessed from a certain stake in culture—when you feel you’re on the margins too much and when your life is not the kind of life the form has developed to express, you may need to do certain things to that form to fit your life, so it can talk about your life. Then you get to a place where people can really master a form. In the new generation of established playwrights, there are as many women as there are men. That’s thrilling. It just takes a long time to happen. It took the Ford Foundation, and even weird old Richard Nixon, back when government wasn’t a bad word, and when government could develop a program to give money to artists, they would do it. The NEA was developed, the Ford Foundation put hundreds of million of dollars into building theaters.
I don’t want to sound chauvinistic, but I don’t think there’s any country in the world producing as many exciting playwrights. That’s heresy, I know, because people talk about England and so on—and there are a lot of exciting playwrights coming out of England, but there are as many, if not more, coming out of America. I only wish certain drama critics would catch up with that fact.